Joy Division is a band shrouded with mystery. They popped up, seemingly out of nowhere, made some songs, and then fizzled out before the world could really appreciate the music that they created. Their music was very unlike what was popular during the time period (late 1970s), and their vision was not fully actualized before the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis led the band to change their name and music style. Knowing the fate of the band, specifically that of its lead singer, makes the music all the more sparse and affecting.
Joy Division started off as a punk band, but quickly outgrew the Sex Pistols-like scene and decided to move on to something different. They toyed around with sounds, and settled on what became known as post-punk. The resulting sound is the equivalent of walking around a graveyard at midnight: sparse, melancholic, and dejecting.
Curtis’ lyrics read like poems, and he was more of a poet than a lead singer of a rock and roll band. The lyrics are what lead you to make sense of the sparse, industrial beats that accompany Bernard Sumner’s heavy guitar riffs. Ian also sang with a very deep baritone, which makes the bleak lyrics all the more austere. “I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand/could these sensations make me feel the pleasures of a normal man?” sings Curtis on opener “Disorder.”
One of the subjects that is alluded to the most on Unknown Pleasures is Curtis’ own struggle with epilepsy, which affected him so badly that he often had to be carried off-stage because his seizures rendered him unable to pick himself up off the floor. “Lights are flashing cars are crashing/getting frequent now/I’ve got the spirit/lose the feeling/let it out somehow” he sings on “Disorder.”
On “Day of the Lords,” the lyrics “where will it end?” are repeated throughout the whole song, with the climax at the end of the song being Ian emotionally yelling the words. You get the feeling that he’s exasperated, and his struggles have left him questioning whether or not things will ever improve.
Ian Curtis was plagued with problems, from his struggles with epilepsy to his crumbling marriage and battle with extreme depression. On “Candidate,” the lyrics “I worked hard for this/I tried to get to you/you treat me like this” and “the strain’s too much, can’t take much more” on “New Dawn Fades” paint the picture of a unsatisfied couple who don’t know which way to turn.
There’s nary a bright spot on Unknown Pleasures. The words “dark,” “distance,” and “end” are used repeatedly. No Joy Division song will ever be the soundtrack to your summer picnic or 80s dance party. That being said, this album sounded like nothing else that came before it. Joy Division set the stage for the post-punk and gothic rock movement. It is hard to image The Cure, Interpol, or even U2 without Joy Division being there to start it all.
Joy Division was a band that started a movement. While they were inspired by the punk bands that took over England in the 1970s, they moved so far beyond that sound that what they did became its own genre. The producer of the album, Martin Hannett, took all of the elements the band members brought to the table and polished it. His eccentric production style gave the Joy Division sound its transcendent and ambient quality. He would turn down the heat so much in his recording studio that the band members could see their breath. You can almost feel that cerebral essence on the resulting record.
Joy Division, like The Velvet Underground before them, inspired so many people that it isn’t outlandish to imagine that alternative and independent rock might be very different if it weren’t for Joy Division. The fact that the band burned out before they could reach success stateside gives them a mystical aura. The lyrics are all so much more affecting because we know the outcome of the sadness and despair felt by their creator.
Their music is incredibly bleak, but there is also beauty in the vulnerability shown by the confessional lyrics. The lyrics almost make you begin to see your own shortcomings and fragility. Listening to Joy Division isn’t always a joyful experience, but their music invades you. It draws you in.
All in all, Joy Division did not make that much music. Unknown Pleasures was their debut album, preceded only by an EP and some songs that they recorded under the name Warsaw. Unknown Pleasures was released in June 1979, and by May of the following year, Ian Curtis was dead. And thus, so was the band.
Their label rushed to put out their sophomore album Closer by July of that same year. Closer featured many of the same elements as their debut, but gained a lot of mystique as a result of the suicide of Curtis. All the sounds that were already bleak became more transcendent due to the sorrowful nature of Curtis’ passing.
After Closer, Joy Division ceased to exist under that name due to a pact made by the band. The rest of the band members became New Order, and they went on to receive much more success than their previous band.
Though New Order received much more success and airplay than Joy Division did, it is safe to say that Joy Division has left a lasting impression even if the band never reached universal stardom in the short years that they recorded music. Even so, their imprint on the world of music will never be erased.
Reviewer: Tricia Stansbury
IRC: Tom Byrne
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